Ayuh Music: The Wallflowers’ “(Breach)”

I will never apologize for liking the Wallflowers, ever. I know: they’re terminally uncool, sort of like Coldplay is in the UK (although they don’t draw the same level of vitriol as Martin et. al), and they only ever had that one good song anyway, right? Right?

Wrong, boyo. In 2000, the Wallflowers released an album completely different from 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse, which included the smash hit “One Headlight,” the song you probably remember them for. This new album was called (Breach). It marked a new direction for the band, with more personal lyrics and much sparser, simpler instrumentation; it evoked weird, dystopian landscapes and emotional isolation. It sounded nothing like the band’s previous work. It was phenomenal – and nobody bought it. The experiment was a failure. When the Wallflowers returned in 2002 with the (decidedly mediocre) Red Letter Days, their previous album was nigh-on erased.

This is a goddamned shame, because (Breach) is one of the best, the bravest, the most unsettling albums I’ve ever heard. It made a huge impression on me as a teenager (I bought it at 15 and nearly wore it out) and every time I return to it I’m re-amazed.

Listen to how it drops you in: the first track, “Letters From The Wasteland,” starts with an unsettling chord and a searching cymbal line, and frontman Jakob Dylan sounds suspicious and weary from the first word. “Now I send back letters from the wasteland home/where I slow-dance to this romance on my own.” Both lyrically and musically, the stage is set: (Breach) can be profoundly dark at times, merely gray at others, but it’s never not worth it.

Reviewers drew comparisons to Tom Petty and the Boss, most evident in the jangling guitar lines and minor chords. The band themselves had plenty to add; Rami Jaffee’s keyboard lines are central throughout, covering the album in unsettling prog-rock waves and contributing to the airs of restlessness and dissatisfaction. There’s rarely anything that could be called a payoff, in which chords resolve and the storyline ends on a happy note; characters muddle through their lives verse after verse, and the purposefully repetitive arrangements foster a sense of mistakes made over and over. On “Some Flowers Bloom Dead,” the song pivots around the single phrase, “How could you feel used when I feel trapped?” – a sentiment reinforced by the chorus “Some flowers never bloom/but some flowers just bloom dead.”

Other songs deal with broken relationships, personal vendettas and failures, and, on the particularly poignant “Hand Me Down,” the shortcomings of sons.

There is one bright light, about a third of the way through. “I’ve Been Delivered” starts with a simple keyboard motif that calls to mind a carnival merry-go-round. As the song progresses, the instrumentation builds, until six or seven sounds are jostling for place and the sense of being overwhelmed becomes inescapable. “Nothing’s hard as getting free from places/ I’ve already been,” Dylan grizzles in the first verse; later, he mourns that “I can’t fix something this complex/any more than I can build a rose.” By the end, however, his plea to leave the lights off has reversed – “Turn on your lights, cause I’m coming home/I’ve been delivered.”

(I can’t find a video anywhere for this song, but you can hear a clip from it on the album’s Amazon page.)

A timely Elvis Costello cameo raises the tone a bit on “Murder 101,” and the beautiful hidden lullaby after “Birdcage” is a gorgeous coda.

(Breach), as it unfolds itself, stands on its own feet: a strike into the unknown, a wobbly salvo against the band’s cowboy-pop of the mid-90s, a darker lens on Dylan’s life. It’s such a brave move for any band to make, to turn their backs on the sounds that made them famous and made them money, and to succeed at turning the whole machine on its head. In its own little way, (Breach) is a masterpiece.

 

 

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: After a six year hiatus, the Wallflowers are releasing a new album, Glad All Over. It comes out next month. I am unreasonably excited about this. Especially if the titular song turns out to be a Dave Clark Five cover.

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Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast." Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dr__song

7 thoughts on “Ayuh Music: The Wallflowers’ “(Breach)””

  1. I LOVED Breach.

    I mean, I loved Bringing Down the Horse, which was one of the very first albums that I ever bought for myself.  And I seem to be in the vast minority that actually enjoyed Red Letter Days.

    But I just simply loved Breach, for all of the vague, dark, beautiful, unsayable things that it tried to say, because that was pretty much how I felt all the time when I was 20.  And I need to go put it back on my iPod right now thank you.

    And I am very, very happy to hear about the upcoming new album.

    Nope, this girl will not ever apologize for liking the Wallflowers, and liking almost everything they’ve ever done.

    1. He’s very good, and I think part of what makes him so good is that he isn’t afraid to draw on the sorts of techniques that he must have heard in his father’s music as a child: particularly those long and convoluted lyrics that draw a picture rather than tell a story. Have you heard his solo album “Women And Country”?

  2. THIS! This is why I decided to finally comment on this site (I’m a creepy lurker, usually). FINALLY someone understands the way I feel about this album. Breach is ridiculously underrated. The fact that they took a departure and didn’t try to re-create singles really stands out. Whole new sound, new maturity, new perspective..

    Basically, this was one of those albums that got me through high school. I actually wore my copy out and bought a second, two disc version.

    Thank you for acknowledging the awesomeness that is this album. It’s like you just wrote what I’ve been saying about Breach all of these years.

    1. ROBIN, COME TO MY ARMS. We will take a stand against the terrible backlash that produced Red Letter Days. Although “How Good It Can Get” is a pretty awesome song.

      I mean, once you’ve harnessed the incredible power of Rami Jaffee on a Moog, how could you put that back in the garage?

      1. YES! I will gladly take a Wallflower hug! I actually liked a bit from Red Letter Days, but none of it have the exquisiteness of Breach. I am a Wallflowers fan loud and proud!

        Rami is so damn good, Dave Grohl was like, “You! You with the glasses and awesome organ! Come play with me, too!” Foo Fighters AND The Wallflowers? Key-tinkling god he be!

        Thank you again for this. You have no idea what kind of Wallflowers kick you put me in. After hearing a lot of Jakob’s solo stuff, I’m really excited for the new album (with Mick Jones on the first single? Yes, please!).

        “Reboot the Mission:”

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